Susan Rostow: Biomorphic Figurations

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Susan Rostow in her studio, Brooklyn, New York, photo courtesy of Carole d’Inverno

Susan Rostow’s sculptures resemble archeological artifacts with biomorphic characteristics, inviting us to probe into their origin, meaning and what they are made of. Textures of abrasive material such as clay and moss-like surface, along with graphic symbols such as linear markings of shore tides and other signifiers from old maps, fuse into hybrid forms where the lines between past and future, what is natural and what is fabricated, are seamlessly blurred.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to art?

I was born in New York City and grew up in Philadelphia, PA. As a child, digging in the earth was one of my favorite activities. There was a small patch of soil around a tree planted between sidewalk pavers on the street where I lived. It was the only bit of “nature” for blocks, and I was drawn to it like a magnet. I sifted through the dirt, sorted the sand and pebbles, built mini-installations, and painted on the sidewalk with it. I enjoyed the feel of the texture and smell of the earth. Playing with soil, mixing it with water, roots and plants made me feel a connection to nature and brought me to art. 

In the mid-seventies I attended Philadelphia College of Art, (University of the Arts) where I studied art foundations and printmaking for 1.5 years. Although, I enjoyed learning various techniques for making art, I felt a strong need to leave the city to see wilderness. When I was 21, I left Philadelphia and traveled across the USA, sketching, camping, hiking, snorkeling, and exploring caves. After a decade of moving around the country I returned to New York City with samples of soil, clay, sand, and minerals from every place I visited. That extraordinary experience of where I’ve been continues to live on in my artwork. Today, I split my time between living in NYC and upstate NY where I am surrounded by the woods. My city and country life merge into one another, and both feel like home. To this day, I still collect samples of sand, soil, and minerals wherever I go.

Let’s start with your recent show at Atlantic gallery. You exhibited there a series of mixed media paper sculptures ranging from around 24 inches to 4 inches high, all include prints, and some include natural material such as shells. Can you tell me about your process of making this body of work, your choice of scale, and the idea behind it?

The process for producing my sculptural works for this show began with the creation of a series of prints which were inspired by historic maps of NYC. Each sculpture was constructed using layers upon layers of prints on paper, embedded and encrusted with multiple applications of mud, sand, glue, and pigment. Additional materials such as real and/or handmade bones, shells, and fungi were added to some of the pieces.

I started working on the show before the pandemic. The first day of lockdown my energy changed, and I was too overwhelmed to continue working large-scale. To ease my anxiety, I started working on tiny sculptures which were less demanding and more playful. After making over 100 small sculptures my energy was restored and I was able to finish the larger pieces.

For my exhibition, I placed small sculptures on floating shelves on the walls and larger pieces on pedestals. The idea behind the installation was to create a feeling of a timeless place. The sculptures resembled biomorphic abstract figures and each one had a unique expression, gesture, and personality. Their placement in relationship to one another suggested a silent conversation and pulled viewers into a world of wonder. I often caught visitors talking out loud directly to the sculptures as they felt free to join the conversation. Surprise elements and small worlds would reveal themselves with a close look. Some of the sculptures had parabolic shaped mirrors hidden inside them and projected an optical illusion above the surface of the piece. These 3d holographic-type projections added a futuristic contrast to their overall ancient archeological appearance. As the viewer became engaged with the piece, they experienced a sense of visiting a strange yet familiar place.

Link to a video tour of Susan Rostow’s, exhibition, Sense of Place, Atlantic Gallery, NYC, March 4 to March 29, 2022

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Susan Rostow, Lunate, 2020, Mixed media paper sculpture, screen print, pigment, sand, preserved fungi, 15 x 15x 13, inches, (small pieces 4 inches), photo courtesy of the artist

Susan Rostow, Standing Tall, 2021, Mixed media paper sculpture, screen print, pigment, crushed glass, and sand, 17 x 22 x 12 inches (small piece 4-inchs), photo courtesy of the artist

In your earlier body of work, Wall Mushrooms, from 2019, you focus on fungi. How do you see the relationship between this series and your more recent work and how does working on wall mounted reliefs differ from working on free standing sculptures?

Wall Mushrooms, provide a sense of place with a background environment for my more recent biomorphic figurative sculptures. This series was based on imagining our planet if humans stopped existing. The installation of fungi on the wall was a glimpse into a possible future without humans maintaining homes-fungi move in and natural decay and regrowth occur.

As usual, I began creating the wall pieces with printmaking. The difference between constructing wall mounted pieces and free-standing sculpture took place when applying wet media on paper. The wall mounted pieces were placed on a table where they dried exactly as I left them. The free-standing sculptures were more precarious. When left standing damp overnight, they would slump over and dry to a different posture. It was as if they had a life of their own. Sometimes I would rework their position the next day but most of the time I allowed the sculptures to dry as they wanted, naturally. For instance, Standing Old, refused to stand straight.  

A picture containing plate, arranged

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Susan Rostow, Fungi On the Wall 2019, wall relief, mixed media, carborundum prints, wood, pigments, sand, crushed glass, 9 x 11 x 4 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

It seems that your work has been closely related to books. You call the map-based work in Over Time “sculptural books.” How do you see the relationship between book art and sculpture? And what is your approach to the narrative element?

My sculptural books are constructed by binding prints together creating a central spine. When I start a sculpture there is no use of a spine or armature. The prints are manipulated by folding and forming the paper into the sculptural form. The narrative is expressed through the black and white graphic images told through lines representing land, shorelines, and islands. The painted surface texture adds to the story by making the piece appear as though it was an atlas fossilized and dug out of the ground.

A picture containing cake, decorated

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Susan Rostow Nut Island, (front view), Sculptural book, screen print on paper, pigment, sand, unique, 14.5 x 8 x 10 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

You are clearly interested in the natural world – fungi, insects, sea, geological layers. Let’s look at your earlier series Insecta, from 2016. What would you like to share about that?

Insecta explores the use of pigments derived from insects. I often collect insects, minerals, shells, soil, clay, and sand to study their color, match their hue and/or mix them directly into my paint. I found Cochineal, a small parasitic insect, living on prickly pear cactus in Palm Desert, California. I brushed off a sample, dried and ground it into a red pigment and used it in this piece.

Susan Rostow, Cochineal, 2016, sculptural book, mixed media, drypoint and carborundum prints, 16 x 21 x 16 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

And you make animation too. Please pick one stop motion you would like to discuss and tell me about your idea and process.

Denatured Bones, brings my sculptural book Bone Legs to another dimension by adding sound and movement. It was created by combining stop motion animation with mixed media, printmaking processes.

Would you like to share what you are working on in your studio these days?

I am working on a biomorphic figurative sculpture that stands on the floor 6 feet tall. It’s so exciting to work on a piece that is larger than myself and will not require a pedestal.

Denatured Bones, stop motion animation, 2020

Susan Rostow is a Brooklyn-based multi-media artist. Her sculptural works remind us how to dream and reimagine our world: past, present, and future. Her recent work has been influenced by her Research Residencies at the New York Academy of Medicine and the New York Historical Society, a collaborative project with CENTRAL BOOKING.  Her work has earned a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant. Susan’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, Peru, Korea, and Japan. Her work is in public and private collections including the Allan Chasanoff Bookwork Collection, Yale University Art Gallery and the Library of Congress, National Print Archives.